September 09, 2010
In comments on the "Let the Great Unhinging Begin" thread, Possum Comitatus makes the same point which would form part of a longer piece I have yet to post:
The problem I have with the ABC isn't bias (six of one, half dozen of the other) - but the seeming lack of intellectual autonomy when it comes to deciding "what is news".The not-yet-post I refer to is actually the reason I decided to start blogging again, in order to be able to link to, rather than tiresomely type out in full, my argument that the business model of commercial media is to sell audiences and readers to advertisers, and thus the job of commercial media journalists is to provide content which helps their companies sell audiences to advertisers, making the audience the product and not the customer, and bearing in mind that the desired product is not so much "as many readers, viewers and listeners as possible" as "the kind of readers, viewers and listeners the customer wants to advertise to". (And that's the short version.) This rather obvious and derivative heuristic makes most of the behaviour of commercial media journalists entirely explicable, where it would be utterly baffling if one believed journalists have an occupational commitment to accurately reporting the news.
Too often we get some story in The Oz, complete with its particular campaigning angle (The Oz is a campaigning newspaper) - then the ABC picks up that story (often because it *is* newsworthy, but sometimes not) but perpetuates that *same* angle when the facts of the story might not particularly support the angle, or when the reality of what is going on is much more nuanced.
It’s laziness, or cowardice, or naivety or just plain hopelessness. Fran Kelly is the biggest and most obvious culprit IMHO - but it extends further into the organisation.
However one wants to describe it, the ABC is increasingly copying what other news organisations decide is "news" (which can be a small problem, but usually isn't), but also treating the editorialised angle that other organisations have attached to that news content as part of the ABC story as well.
That said, the more pertinent question is why public media journalists persist in the delusion that commercial media journalists are their colleagues, given that they do two completely different jobs. The explanation is probably to be found in human psychology or perhaps the psychology of institutions, the shared job market, schooling, et cetera, or even, dare I say it, in class identity. Whatever the reason, more important would be working out how public media journalists can be persuaded to give up this delusion of a shared occupation (it's certainly not a profession) and start doing the job the charter of their public broadcaster claims they are doing, providing accurate and relevant information to the viewer.
A friend of mine met an ABC journalist at a dinner party (yes, it's going to be one of those stories) who had been to a job interview with the BBC. She said they had asked her to characterise the news culture at the ABC. She asked what they meant. "Well," they said, "at the BBC we take the position that whatever news story the commercial stations are covering we shouldn't be, and we should be covering whatever stories they're not covering. In fact, if we find that the commercial media has picked up a story we covered, we wonder if we've made an error." "Ah," she said, "at the ABC it's the exact opposite. Whatever the commercial media thinks the news is, we follow. The philosophy is to ensure that the ABC covers everything, and nothing but, what the commercial stations cover." If my friend's anecdote is accurate, it would seem the ABC's approach to news is more than a lack of intellectual autonomy but a deliberate corporate policy, motivated by what it would be difficult to know for sure, although a spineless managerial paranoia about getting hectored for "bias" is probably part of it.
I suspect the BBC claim of its independent news values is a tad overblown (and obviously doesn't extend to stories like "London destroyed in tsunami"). If the Beeb does avoid swallowing the British commercial media's idea of what's news, I suspect they are less successful at avoiding a sheeplike embrace of the commercial media's idea of what's journalism. In this regard, too, public broadcasters need to drop the notion of a shared occupation, and drop their aping of the commercial media's adolescent obsession with "scoops" and "exclusives" (which in the day and age of the Internet seem like something out of a 1930s screwball comedy) and concentrate on their charter obligations. "Woohoo! We were the first to report that story!" "Oh, goody. Was it true?" "Erm... oh, you just don't understand the industry." The behaviour of the ABC's new 24 hour channel gives no confidence they understand their real responsibilities, except insofar as they are attempting to be as fast (and loose) as Sky, but failing.